Moss Point, Mississippi, a small town along the Singing River near the Gulf of Mexico, had seen its share of turmoil that summer. Volunteers were in town only a few days when a meeting hall was firebombed and several were arrested. With tension rising, blacks and whites were buying guns, and one white was found carrying a grenade. Rumors of black children poisoned by candy had only been rumors, yet Moss Point remained a racial tripwire, taut, edgy, just waiting for something horrible to happen.
“Tonight the sickness struck,” a Moss Point volunteer wrote home on July 6. That Monday evening, three hundred people packed into the Knights of Pythias Hall, its front door still blackened from the Molotov cocktail. Speaking to the crowd, a stocky, bespectacled man was rising to a fever pitch. Lawrence Guyot, beaten along with Fannie Lou Hamer the year before, was furious. Like Greenville, his native Gulf Coast was known for relative tolerance, yet despite steady canvassing, few had come out to register. “What will it take to make you people move?” Guyot shouted. “A rape? A shooting? A murder? What will it take? ” Other speeches followed before Freedom Songs soothed tensions. Meanwhile in nearby Pascagoula, three men crammed into a small car. They barely had room for the rifle.
Back at the Knights Hall, the crowd had arrived at every meeting’s final song. Glowing, ecstatic faces sang together, arms clasped, swaying like lilies in the field. The lone cop on hand, concluding the meeting was over, drove away. Then as a final “We Shall Overcome” filled the hall, the car sped past. Three sharp cracks rang out. Near the window, a black woman crumpled to the floor. A fan toppled, its whirring blades slamming into the concrete like a machine gun firing. In the chaos, one volunteer saw the fallen woman “lying on the ground clutching her stomach. She was so still and looked like a statue with a tranquil smile on her face.” Several men bolted from the hall, hopped in a car, and chased the attackers into a gas station. But one white leveled the rifle, sending blacks scurrying. When police arrived, they arrested the blacks and let everyone else go. At Singing River Hospital, the woman was listed in “good” condition, but the shots sent notice that despite the hope, the singing, the new Civil Rights Act, this was still Mississippi, still the “long, hot summer,” and it was just July.
June had been a blanket, but July was an oven, melting, igniting, engulfing. Timeless patterns governed July in Mississippi. The first was the relentless humidity, the sultry nights never drying the earth before the sun rose again to turn on the steam. The second pattern was the cycle of heat and rain, heat and rain. Both patterns were ingrained in locals who knew when to get chores done, when a blazing sky made a nap seem in order, when thunderheads would hover on the horizon like anvils, and when marble-sized rain-drops would turn the red earth to mud, cooling the oven to a sticky 80 degrees or so. But volunteers were still learning the patterns. It was not unusual to find them alone on the street at noon. Chris Williams could not understand why no male in Mississippi wore shorts, and neither could he. Nor could volunteers swim anywhere, the rivers being muddy or snake-infested and the public pools off-limits to “invaders.” Day after day the heat mounted, turning skin into hot leather and tempers into fuses. With air-conditioning in only the richest homes, relief came solely when leaden clouds unleashed their fury, releasing a collective sigh from the people and the land. And as volunteers gradually learned the patterns, Mississippi unleashed its own fury.
That week, a Confederate flag flew outside the elegant Robert E. Lee Hotel in Jackson. A sign in the door read, “Closed in Despair—Civil Rights Bill Unconstitutional.” (The hotel opened a few days later as a private club.) Across town, city officials fenced off a park after whites complained about black kids running through it shouting, “I’m free!” Elsewhere in Mississippi, pools and libraries closed. Restaurant owners drove blacks off at gunpoint. Governor Paul Johnson predicted more violence “unless these people get out of the state and go back to their own problems at home.” And a few hours after the Moss Point shooting, flames torched three more churches in Mississippi. The pattern was now heat and fire, heat and fire. But as this merciless climate descended, it could not smother those too innocent, too committed, to heed the mayhem all around them.
Warm, soft rains had greeted Fran O’Brien when a Greyhound bus left her on the bluffs above the Mississippi River in the Civil War siege site of Vicksburg. Being from southern California, where it never rains in summer, Fran immediately sensed Mississippi as exotic. Yet once inside COFO’s Freedom House, she felt right at home among her lifelong friends—children. A black woman named Bessie, her husband killed by the Klan, her house recently bombed, was living with her six children amid the boxes and clutter. While other volunteers roamed the Freedom House that Sunday afternoon, the children flocked around the newcomer with the pale face, dark, curly hair, and sweet smile, begging Fran to do something with them on a rainy day. And so, fresh from an Oregon campus and two long bus rides, twenty-one-year-old Fran O’Brien began her summer. In the next seven weeks, she would meet Martin Luther King. She would have a terrifying encounter with the Klan. She would turn the red clay of Mississippi into craft projects, and although too modest to claim the role, she would represent creativity in its ceaseless battle with destruction.
Fran cared little about the politics of Freedom Summer. Instead, she saw the project as a chance to test her Christian values, and to teach. Bashful around adults, Fran came alive with children. In high school and at Pacific University in Oregon, the slim, demure woman had helped out in classrooms, doing crafts and drama with minimal materials, precisely what was planned in Freedom Schools. Learning of the summer project from her United Campus Christian Fellowship, Fran took out an application, but could not make up her mind. Finally, a scene from the film Judgment at Nuremberg sent her south. When a judge asked a German housekeeper what she had done under Hitler, Fran asked herself how she would feel if, in thirty years, someone asked what she had done during the civil rights movement and she had to say, “Nothing.”
A long letter home to Whittier, California, surprised her parents. “I hope you’re not too upset,” Fran wrote. “I also hope our ceiling is still in tact.” Her father, a labor attorney, felt proud. Her mother, a former social worker, tried to be supportive but kept asking, “Are you sure this is what you want to do? ” Fran was sure. Her letter made it “clearly understood that this is my project.” She had saved $100 and, throwing in $57.30 from her tax return, insisted on paying her own expenses. After attending a wedding, she had boarded a Greyhound for Spokane, transferred again and again, and arrived at the Ohio campus on the Sunday the three men disappeared. Throughout that grim week, Fran had tried to concentrate on workshops, yet news from Mississippi kept interrupting.
On Monday morning, when Rita Schwerner had sent volunteers to write their congressmen, Fran had found a different way to face the danger. California’s was the training’s largest cohort, and Fran figured no one would miss her if she took care of other business. Her niece had a birthday in July, and “it occurred to me that I might not be around.” While alarm spread across campus, Fran walked into town and bought a toy teakettle, shipped it to California, then went back to the training, still determined to go to Mississippi. Vicksburg would be her site. She knew it only as a battlefield.
While rain tapped on windows of the Freedom House that Sunday, Fran sat at a broken-down piano, playing all the songs the kids knew. Other volunteers ventured into neighboring streets, but Fran spent all afternoon singing, inventing games, spinning stories. That same day in the black section of Vicksburg, three kids playing in a field found a dead body. In the coming week, a volunteer’s car windshield would be shattered, Freedom School students would be struck by stones, and a nearby church would go up in flames. Fran O’Brien would only hear of each incident. She did not bother about what adults did to other adults. There were children present.
The day after Fran’s arrival, volunteers spruced up the Vicksburg Community Center. All day, kids came up the long, potholed driveway to flock around the newcomers, begging to help but mostly getting in the way. Fran’s classes would not start until the following Monday. In the meantime, she struggled to settle into her host home. The elderly woman who had taken her in seemed to want nothing to do with her. If Fran or her roommate took a seat in the living room, the woman moved to the kitchen. If they followed, the woman went back to the living room. “It was just the way she’d grown up,” Fran remembered. “You don’t sit down in the parlor with white folks; that’s being uppity.” Feeling as if she were chasing the woman around her own house, Fran stayed in her room as much as possible. On the evening President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, she was at the Freedom House. The building was crammed with volunteers and neighbors who did not have televisions. “He’s signing!” someone shouted and everyone ran to the blue-lit TV, cheered, sang “We Shall Overcome” and then, for fun, “We Have Overcome.”
Four days later, Fran began classes in the refurbished community center. The building still had no plumbing or electricity. Dappled light filtered through windows as Fran helped kids weave on cardboard looms. Later the class crowded close as she read stories, her serene face and California accent riveting each child. That afternoon, as a mob in Neshoba County menaced touring NAACP leaders, Fran played outdoor games with the children. After dinner, while shots rang out in Moss Point, she and other teachers planned the coming week. Just before going to bed, Fran wrote her mother.
Please try not to worry too much. Vicksburg is the best place to work in Mississippi so far as staying out of danger is concerned. I’ll admit seven weeks seems like a long time before coming home, but not nearly as long as it seemed three weeks ago when I was beginning to wonder if I’d get to Mississippi—let alone get back. . . . I’ll trust God and try to keep my enthusiasm within reasonable limits. I’m very grateful to you for standing behind me in this.
Good night and Love,
By the second week of July, everyone assumed Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were dead—everyone, that is, except their mothers. In her Manhattan apartment, Carolyn Goodman found herself drawn to her son’s room. Silent and sorrowful, she sat staring at clothes, books, folk music LPs, wondering what Andy had thought of each, fighting the thought that she would never know. One afternoon, a man called, saying he had Andy in a Brooklyn hotel and would return him for $15,000. The man grew enraged when asked to provide proof and never called again. Since the disappearance, the Goodmans had received scores of letters offering prayers, condolences, even a $500 check “which will help you discover the killer of your beautiful Andy.” A ten-year-old girl had written to say she had named her cat Andrew Goodman because “I think Andrew Goodman is a heroe [sic] and I think something should be named after him.” Of all the letters, the Goodmans were especially comforted by one from a mother in Meridian, Mississippi. Apologizing for her state, the woman asked, “Who are these fiends and where do they live who would come out of the darkness and kill? ”
A thousand miles south, Fannie Lee Chaney had taken to pacing outside her home in Meridian. Each night she walked until the sky lightened, circling the house, wearing a path in the grass, humming “Rock of Ages” or some other spiritual. Each evening after work, she cleaned obsessively, mop-ping the kitchen floor three or four times, washing the dishes, drying them, washing them again. She refused to let twelve-year-old Ben go down the street to play ball. One evening she got a call from a young woman who told of recently giving birth to “J. E.’s” daughter. Skeptical, she had mother and child take a taxi to her house. One look at the baby, and Fannie Lee Chaney knew she was a grandmother. She took the baby in her arms, wishing she could do the same with her own son.
And still there was no trace of the men. Mississippi’s raw, rugged land could not have been better suited for hiding a body. Murky rivers gave up nothing to the grappling hook. Swamps kept their secrets behind protruding trees, beneath black waters. Tangled vineroot defied anyone to tear through it. No trace. The FBI lab in New Orleans examined items from the burned station wagon—dirt and debris, keys, a charred wristwatch stopped at 12:45—but found “no evidence of human remains.” The latest lead, a grave along the Chunky River south of Neshoba County, turned out to contain a dead horse. With hope disappearing, America’s obsession with Mississippi was turning to other concerns—to the mounting crisis in Vietnam, to the upcoming Republican National Convention, to the topless swimsuit craze. No longer in the media spotlight, some in Mississippi again felt the impunity of “the good ol’ days” when what happened in Mississippi stayed there. And the effort to stop Freedom Summer, to drive the “invaders” out, to preserve “our way of life,” exploded with a vengeance.
Cops tired of arresting volunteers on any pretense and releasing them on $100 bail began upping the bail. Reckless driving—$250. Speeding—$400. Trespassing—$500. Trespassing and public profanity—$1,000. Ordinary citizens lashed out. In Hattiesburg, several black kids went to an inn whose “Whites Only” sign had been taken down. The owner’s wife pulled a gun. In the Delta, a volunteer was not just told to leave the courthouse but grabbed by the neck and thrown out. In Jackson, a white man parked his pickup, got out, decked a Negro with a sucker punch, and drove off. Such incidents—more violent, more frequent, more frightening—were happening all over Mississippi. That made the silence from McComb especially terrifying.
By Tuesday, July 7, SNCC again had a “beachhead” in Mississippi’s deep Deep South. During the holiday weekend, five volunteers and two SNCC staffers had crammed into a beat-up sedan and set out from Jackson. Rolling south beneath puffy blue skies, the integrated car attracted little attention along the newly opened stretch of Interstate 55. But when the interstate ended and the sedan began snaking down two-lane roads, a highway patrol car pulled behind. As if one was towing the other, the two vehicles drove on past vines and thickets that grew denser with each mile. SNCC staffers must have felt a clammy sense of dread as they passed the sign reading “Pike County.” McComb (pop. 12,020) was the toughest of Mississippi’s “tough towns,” but because Bob Moses wanted SNCC to “share the terror” of local blacks, a Freedom House was to open on the black side of town.
With the highway patrol in its rearview mirror, the sedan drove slowly into McComb. Given what they had heard of the place, volunteers might have expected to see some redneck backwater out of Tobacco Road. Instead they saw well-kept drugstores and five-and-dimes, pink azaleas bursting from planters on covered sidewalks, and a billboard picture of a beauty queen beneath the words “Home of Miss Mississippi.” McComb was a “railroad town.” Freights rumbled through several times a day, hundreds of men worked for one railroad or another, and twice daily, the City of New Orleans stopped at the old station, taking passengers to or from Chicago. Trains were the only sign of life on a baking Sunday afternoon as SNCC veterans reacquainted themselves with the town they had fled three years earlier. There in back alleys stood the “Colored Only” entrances to restaurants. There were the city hall steps where a mob had beaten several SNCCs in 1961. And there behind them was the highway patrolman, his red light flashing.
Pulling the SNCC car over, the patrolmen took all seven men in for questioning. But to their surprise, they were not beaten, nor arrested. Released, they drove across the railroad tracks and pulled up at a small, tumbledown house in a neighborhood of small, tumbledown houses. No angry whites greeted them. No pickups circled. That evening as the new arrivals ate at a Negro café, two cops entered, walked to the back, glared at one white man, then walked out. The following day, SNCC staff, accompanied by one of the four touring congressmen, met with McComb’s mayor and the Pike County sheriff. The sheriff even promised police protection for the Freedom House. SNCC sent back word to Jackson: “Morale is building.” Bob Moses, however, was not fooled. On Tuesday evening, he visited the Freedom House and begged all those he had just sent there to leave. Something was going to happen, Moses said. Curtis Hayes, whose determination to work in his hometown had convinced Moses to open the house, refused to go. Others said they would depart the next morning. Moses left, and all went to sleep.
The usual incoming distress calls lit up the WATS line in Jackson that Tuesday evening, but at 1:30 a.m., the phone stopped ringing. For the next two hours, the office was eerily quiet. Then the phone rang again. A scratchy voice was on the line. From McComb. “Have just had a bombing . . . wait a minute . . .” Endless moments passed before the man said he would call back. The full report finally came on one of the new CB radios COFO was installing in offices throughout the state.
With a blast heard all over McComb, eight sticks of dynamite had blown in the front of the Freedom House. Curtis Hayes had been sleeping near the front window. The explosion knocked him across the room, knocked him unconscious. He woke up head pounding, ears ringing, arms, legs, and face laced with cuts. Crawling through the wreckage, Hayes met another staffer. “See that, motherfucker,” the man said. “I told you we should get the hell outta here.” A volunteer from Oregon had suffered a concussion. Others sleeping in the house were unhurt. Back in Jackson, staffers worried they had moved into McComb too soon, but another call suggested that the bomb had only strengthened spirits: “Bomb was placed between car and end of house at front of house at left, facing street. Damage on left side. Whole left side completely smashed in—can drive a car thru. Middle, all windows smashed, walls falling down from top. Shattered windows two houses across the street and next door. We are going ahead in the community. Everyone determined. Mass meeting tonight.”
During the second week of July 1964, while children across America relished their freedom from classrooms, three dozen schools opened in Mississippi. Classes met in converted shacks and church basements, beneath trees and on open lawns. Teachers had few textbooks and little training. Attendance was entirely voluntary. There would be no lectures and no tests, no principals, no homework. Yet the lessons would change the lives of nearly every teacher and every student. These were the Freedom Schools.
Freedom Schools had an unusual legacy. In the fall of 1961, McComb high school student Brenda Travis was suspended for her role in a sit-in, leading one hundred fellow students to walk out in protest. When the hundred were also suspended, SNCC opened its own school, quickly dubbed “Non-Violent High.” Bob Moses taught math again; other SNCCs taught history, black history, art, and literature. Non-Violent High classes continued until all the teachers were convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and sentenced to six months. Ever since, parallel schooling had been a SNCC dream and, for young blacks in Mississippi, a light in the wilderness.
A decade after the Brown decision, Mississippi remained the last southern state whose schools were completely and defiantly segregated. Schools were just one of Mississippi’s “separate but equal” institutions, but they made the biggest mockery of the phrase. Forty-two percent of Mississippi whites had finished high school; among blacks the figure was 7 percent. Statewide per-pupil expenditures for whites were four times what they were for blacks, and in some counties the ratio was fifty to one. Black teachers struggled on in dilapidated classrooms with ancient texts, no equipment, and only the most basic subjects. Yet it was their teaching that infuriated SNCC veteran Charlie Cobb. With fifty students in a class, teachers had no time for questioning or investigation, and principals hired by white school boards did not dare challenge the status quo. Freedom Schools, Cobb noted in a cowritten prospectus, would be different. The prospectus was sent that spring to all Freedom School teachers.
To those who had plowed through dry educational monographs, SNCC’s “Notes on Teaching in Mississippi” must have stood out like the prose of Eudora Welty. It opened: “This is the situation. You will be teaching young people who have lived in Mississippi all their lives. That means that they have been deprived of decent education from first grade through high school. It means that they have been denied free expression and free thought. Most of all it means that they have been denied the right to question. The purpose of the Freedom Schools is to help them begin to question.”
What would the students be like?
“They will be different but they will have in common the scars of the system. Some will be cynical. Some will be distrustful. All of them will have a serious lack of preparation . . . but all of them will have a knowledge far beyond their years. This knowledge is the knowledge of how to survive in a society that is out to destroy you.”
And what would students demand of teachers?
“They will demand that you be honest. . . . Honesty means that you will ask questions as well as answer them. It means that if you don’t know something you will say so.” Freedom Schools, the prospectus concluded, would mount a full frontal assault on Mississippi’s power structure, a structure that confined Negro education to “learning to stay in your place . . . to be satisfied—‘a good nigger.’ ”
Planning three dozen schools for a thousand students on a budget of $2,000 took more time than most had expected. In March, SNCC meetings in Manhattan had tapped the expertise of professors and teachers. The Freedom School curriculum they devised would include (1) remedial and standard classes in reading, writing, and math; (2) a study of the movement; (3) more black history than anyone had yet taught in an American public school; (4) lessons questioning conditions in Mississippi and in northern ghettos; and (5) comparisons of the Negro and the “poor white.” Teachers were also encouraged to offer the electives whites alone enjoyed in Mississippi public schools, including typing, French, Spanish, art, drama, and dance. And above all, they were urged to “be creative. Experiment. The kids will love it.”
Arriving in Mississippi on June 28, teachers had spent a week arranging classrooms, shelving books, and spreading word about their schools. But with the term “Freedom School” seeming like an oxymoron, would anyone come to classes taught by strangers in the middle of summer? The answer depended less on curiosity than on terror.
Three schools were planned in Canton, half an hour north of Jackson. But a man threatened to bomb students’ homes, and others broke into the new library and urinated on the books. On registration day, no one showed up at one school, just a handful at others. Then teachers went door to door and hosted their own Fourth of July picnic. Enrollment soon topped seventy-five. In Ruleville, fifty packed into the old shack that carpenter Fred Winn and others had brought back to life. Because Ruleville’s public schools were still in session, morning classes were for adults, often with toddlers. While cotton baked in surrounding fields, the house swarmed with activity. Children raced in and out. Adults studied citizenship, health, and the three R’s, while teachers sat on the sagging porch near the tall sunflowers, discussing Huckleberry Finn or the truth about Reconstruction. Following a midday break from the heat, high school students took over the school, exploring literature, African culture, art, and biology. Girls especially liked dance classes, where they taught their ungainly teachers how to flap their arms and do “the Monkey.” Above the clamor, students could hear a loud clacking coming from the porch. Typing class.
In Meridian, where Rita and Mickey Schwerner had paved the way, 50 students were expected, but 120 showed up. Teachers facing classes of 30 or more struggled to draw answers from shy students. “What do we mean when we say things are bad in Mississippi?” “What do white people have that we want? ” Despite the overcrowding, one Meridian teacher noticed what SNCC had said about “a knowledge far beyond their years.” “If reading levels are not always the highest,” he wrote home, “the philosophical understanding is almost alarming: some of the things that our 11 and 12 year olds will come out with would never be expected from someone of that age in the North.”
Other schools opened that week in Greenwood and Vicksburg, Greenville and Moss Point. But the most successful schools were down south in Hattiesburg. Blacks there were still talking about “Freedom Day” the previous January, when two hundred had picketed the courthouse in the rain. Since then, more than a thousand had tried to register, some trying six, seven, eight times. Much of Hattiesburg’s fervor stemmed from a single name—Clyde Kennard. The sturdy army veteran had tried to integrate Mississippi Southern College, only to be framed on a charge of stealing chicken feed. Sent to Parchman Farm, Kennard developed terminal cancer but was kept behind bars until just before his death. United in outrage, black Hattiesburg had welcomed SNCC and strengthened its NAACP. As Freedom Summer approached, plans were made for seven Freedom Schools. On registration day, 150 students were expected; 575 showed up. The first to register was an eighty-two-year-old man who had taught himself to read but needed help with the registration form. When classes opened, all seven schools were full. Directors had to promise a second session in August.
Planning and publicity had filled Freedom Schools, but could classes foster any meaningful sense of freedom? Could white college students who had first read The Souls of Black Folk en route to Ohio teach black history? Could they help students see “the link between a rotting shack and a rotting America”? Pamela Parker, from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, sent the answers home in a letter.
Dear Mom and Dad,
The atmosphere in class is unbelievable. It is what every teacher dreams about—real, honest enthusiasm and desire to learn anything and everything. The girls come to class of their own free will. They respond to everything that is said. They are excited about learning. They drain me of everything that I have to offer so that I go home at night completely exhausted but very happy. . . .
Not all teachers were happy, however. Many were appalled at what their students did not know. Asked the number of states in America, one boy answered, “Eighty-two” (the number of counties in Mississippi). In one Hattiesburg classroom, not a single student had heard of Brown v. Board of Education. “Where do roads come from?” Answer: “God.” And the capital of the United States? “Ummm . . . Jackson?” Compounding the ignorance were the conditions. Walls sported just a poster or two. Students clustered on benches instead of sitting at desks, supplies were chronically short, and classrooms were so stifling that afternoon classes often met outside under trees. To surmount such obstacles, teachers applied creativity—broken windows in one school were covered by kids’ watercolors—and tireless energy. Most teachers began at 7:00 a.m., planning classes that started an hour later. Teachers taught till noon, broke for lunch, ran three-hour afternoon sessions, went home for dinner, and returned for evening work with adults. Accustomed to low pay, these teachers were working for none. Their ten-dollar weekly room and board came out of their own pockets.
While most Freedom Schools hummed, a few were all but silent. In Moss Point, still reeling from the drive-by shooting, less than a dozen students showed up each day. In several towns, ministers fearful of firebombs refused to turn church halls into classrooms, and Freedom Schools had yet to open. In the destitute Delta town of Shaw, forty students had shown up the first day, ten the second. Finally, the school’s director wrote Freedom School supervisor Staughton Lynd:
I think I am rapid [sic] losing whatever effectiveness I may have had as a coordinator, or even as a rights worker. . . . Living conditions here are so terrible, the Negroes are so completely oppressed, so completely without hope, that I want to change it all NOW. I mean this as sincerely as I can. Running a freedom school is an absurd waste of time. I don’t want to sit around in a classroom; I want to go out and throw a few bombs, burn a few office buildings, not to injure people but to shake them up. . . . I really can’t stand it here.
Lynd scheduled a trip to Shaw.
But despair was less common than discovery. Startled by teachers they could call by their first names, teachers who dared them to question Mississippi, kids were also amazed to learn they had a proud history. Stories of the Amistad slave rebellion spread smiles across black faces. Students were stunned to hear that a black man, Matthew Henson, had been one of the first to reach the North Pole. And they ate up the poetry of Langston Hughes, reading his poems aloud, begging to take his books home. Endesha Ida Mae Holland remembered reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy in the Greenwood Freedom School. “I kept thinking, ‘Well, you mean black folk can actually write books?’ Because I’d always been told blacks had done no great things, they hadn’t done anything, we had nothing that we could be proud of.” As initial awkwardness settled into familiar rhythms of call-and-response, students and teachers shared their curiosity and their surprise at coming together across racial boundaries, across the North-South divide, and across cacophonous classrooms where young hands shot in the air and withered old hands gripped pencils, slowly writing, A . . . B . . . C . . . “Our school was by any definition a fine school,” remembered Sandra Adickes, a New York English teacher who taught in Hattiesburg. “No attendance sheets, absentee postcards, truant officers, report cards—just perfect attendance.”
The morning after the bomb caved in McComb’s Freedom House, cops stood in the rain near the cratered driveway, studying the rubble. “Looks like termites to me,” one joked. But police and everyone else in McComb knew precisely who was to blame.
The Ku Klux Klan was said to be a “secret” organization. Masked in secret handshakes, clandestine greetings, and bizarre titles from kleagle to kludd, the Klan rarely claimed responsibility for violence. Yet throughout the spring of 1964, telltale terrorism—the disappearance of five black men, the flogging of blacks in a bayou, the bombing of local heroes’ homes—convinced everyone in Pike County that the Klan was rising again. In the ninety years since its vigilante violence had “redeemed” the state, the Klan had rarely been strong in Mississippi. Whites there saw little need for a Klan. Blacks knew “their place,” and whites knew enough of terror to keep them in it. Only in the 1920s, when “Ku Kluxism” spread across America, did the Klan return to the Magnolia State, but courageous Delta planters had exposed its corruption, leaving the KKK dormant for decades. Then during the civil rights movement, the Klan resurged, and not just in Mississippi. By the summer of 1964, klaverns were meeting all over the South. North Carolina’s Klan had seven thousand members. A “Razorback Klan” raged in Arkansas. Fiery Klan rallies sparked violence in St. Augustine, Florida, and the Klan was spreading “like wild-fire” in Louisiana. Mississippi, as its legacy of lynching proved, had plenty of vigilantes—all summer, the random beatings, threats, and other mayhem were mostly perpetrated by ordinary citizens not affiliated with any klavern. But it took the Klan’s deadly mix of religion, eugenics, and paranoia to turn freelance bigotry into a holy war. Several months before Freedom Summer, a new Klan offshoot began infecting the “Sovereign Realm of Mississippi.”
The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi had a mission as righteous as that of their ancestors. The mission was explained by The Klan Ledger, a pamphlet distributed that Fourth of July. “We are now in the midst of the ‘long, hot summer’ of agitation which was promised to the Innocent People of Mississippi by the savage blacks and their communist masters,” the pamphlet began. The Ledger went on to denounce “the so-called ‘disappearance’ ” of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. Any fool “so simple that he cannot recognize a communist hoax which is as plain as the one they pulled on Kennedy in Dallas” was urged to read J. Edgar Hoover’s treatise on communism, Masters of Deceit. The White Knights, the Ledger said, had taken no action—yet. Klansmen were “NOT involved” in the disappearance—“there was NO DISAPPEARANCE.” However . . . “We are not going to sit back and permit our rights and the rights of our posterity to be negotiated away by a group composed of atheistic priests, brainwashed black savages, and mongrelized money-worshipers, meeting with some stupid or cowardly politician. Take heed, atheists and mongrels, we will not travel your path to a Leninist Hell. . . . Take your choice, SEGREGATION, TRANQUILITY AND JUSTICE OR, BI-RACISM, CHAOS AND DEATH.”
Bombs and floggings were the hallmarks of the Pike County Klan, but the Neshoba klavern had other ways of making its presence known. From the day after the “so-called ‘disappearance,’ ” the Klan was a secret shared all over Philadelphia, Mississippi. Locals speculated on which tight-lipped farmers, which hot-tempered businessmen, which brutal cops, had joined the klavern. Though Klansmen were supposed to change meeting locations and park their cars at least a block away, the same volatile white men were regularly seen entering the Steak House Café near the Neshoba County courthouse. Locals called them “the goon squad.” In the wake of the Civil Rights Act, the Steak House Café became a private club with white sheets draped over windows. Other suspected Klan haunts included certain downtown barbershops, diners, and drugstores. In the white community, suspicion spread when the FBI repeatedly summoned some lean, leather-necked trucker—or his uncle—to the Delphia Courts Motel. Across the railroad tracks, blacks heard whenever a maid found white robes in her boss’s closet. But Klansmen alone knew just how the Klan operated and where it would strike next.
A Klansman’s weapons were as blunt as dynamite and as cheap as gasoline, but Mississippi’s White Knights had four explicit tactics in their holy war. The first was publicity—mostly cross burning and leafleting. The second—“burning and dynamiting.” The third tactic was flogging, and the fourth, “extermination.” The Klan’s Imperial Wizard was the only man who could order the fourth tactic, and no one outside the Klan knew who he was.
Sam Holloway Bowers did not fit the stereotype of a Klansman. Slim and soft-spoken, Bowers fancied himself a southern gentleman, several cuts above his followers. “The typical Mississippi redneck doesn’t have sense enough to know what he is doing,” Bowers said. “I have to use him for my own cause and direct his every action to fit my plan.” Bowers’s grandfather had served four terms in Congress, and his father, a salesman, had instilled in Bowers a fierce righteousness about all things white, southern, and Christian. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Bowers had attended the University of Southern California on the GI Bill, then returned to Mississippi to start a vending machine company in Laurel. But by the late 1950s, the southern gentleman had developed a fascination with swastikas, guns, and anything that exploded. With the cold war raging and blacks stirring throughout Mississippi, Bowers’s righteousness festered into full-blown paranoia. He began warning friends that communists were training an army of blacks in Cuba. The army would soon invade the Gulf Coast. The president would then federalize the Mississippi National Guard, forcing whites to evacuate the state, leaving it defenseless against the black-communist onslaught. The Kremlin, Bowers often said, was a front for Jews trying to topple Christianity. To such a fevered mind, Freedom Summer was a clarion call.
Late in 1963, Bowers started his own klavern, and a few months later, he gathered two hundred men to form the statewide White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He soon drafted a Klan Konstitution calling Mississippi a “Sovereign Realm” to be protected by himself as Imperial Wizard and a two-house Klongress. From his klavern in Laurel, Bowers began relaying orders: “The purpose and function of this organization is to preserve Christian Civilization. . . . The Will and Capability of the Liberals, Comsymps, Traitors, Atheists, and Communists to resist and subvert Christian, American Principles MUST BE DESTROYED. This is our Sacred Task.”
Just as no one outside the Klan knew the Imperial Wizard’s identity, no one knew whether he had ordered extermination for Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. But Bowers’s paranoia, inflaming dozens of upstart klaverns and backed by stockpiles of dynamite and gasoline, added up to a single tactic—terror. And although their primary targets were black, the Klan terrorized anyone who got in its way. Before Freedom Summer was over, crosses would burn on the lawns of two mayors, a newspaper editor, a doctor who contributed to a church rebuilding fund, a grocer who refused to fire his black workers, even a judge. The message was unmistakable and effective. And as the summer heated up, with moderate voices terrorized into silence, the Klan proceeded with its sacred task to drive off “our Satanic enemies” and ignite Mississippi.
Robert Kennedy had warned LBJ. Shortly before Freedom Summer, Kennedy had notified the president: “Some forty instances of Klan type activity or police brutality have come to the department’s attention over the past four months. I have little doubt that this will increase.” Come July, the president, whose father had been threatened by the Texas Klan, turned again to J. Edgar Hoover. “I think you ought to put fifty, a hundred people after this Klan . . . ,” LBJ told Hoover. “You ought to have the best intelligence system—better than you’ve got on the Communists. . . . I don’t want these Klansmen to open their mouth without your knowing what they’re saying.” Hoover sent more agents with instructions “to identify and interview every Klansman in the state.” Then on July 9, the FBI director stunned Mississippians by announcing he was coming to Jackson. The next day.
Hoover had never been to Mississippi, and news of his arrival stirred a frenzy of speculation. “Neshoba Arrests Believed Imminent,” the Meridian Star headlined. Arrests, however, were nowhere near. FBI agents were still finding Neshoba County a human swamp. Some residents had finally begun to talk, but not about the disappearance. Agents questioning locals were subjected to tiresome rants about Communists and Jews, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The resistance on the street was less subtle. Agents walking through Philadelphia were shouldered off sidewalks, spat upon, hounded by threats. One even found rattlesnakes in his car. FBI veteran Joseph Sullivan, the burly, crew-cut agent heading the investigation, had found just one reliable source—the Meridian highway patrolman who had handed over the initial list of seven suspects. From late June into early July, Sullivan and his source met on sidewalks and in cafés to talk about the Klan and “whose neighbors were friendly with who.” But whenever Sullivan asked about Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, the patrolman fell silent. As for the rest of Neshoba County, Sullivan said it needed no Klan because its ordinary citizens were the most conspiratorial he had ever met. Three weeks after their arrival, many of Sullivan’s men had given up. The search was “just going through the motions,” one said. But a few held out hope: “We haven’t even started leaning on suspects yet. When we do, we’re going to lean real hard. I feel like somebody will break.”
On Friday morning, July 10, a bulky, bulldoggish figure strode onto the tarmac at the Jackson airport. J. Edgar Hoover was greeted by Governor Paul Johnson and Jackson mayor Allen Thompson. “This is truly a great day!” the mayor said, pumping Hoover’s hand. Hoover, wearing his usual scowl, did not seem to agree. He knew next to nothing about Mississippi—he had called the Delta town where the FBI had recently made arrests “Teeny Weeny.” Opening an office in Jackson had been Hoover’s idea, but going there in July was not. LBJ had arranged the visit. “This Mississippi thing is awful mean,” the president complained. “I’m gonna have to walk a tight-wire there.” Along with sending Hoover, Johnson had ordered the FBI to make its presence in Jackson as public as possible, and all that week, agents had hastily converted an abandoned bank into the bureau’s first Mississippi headquarters. Empty file cabinets were dragged in. False facades covered bare concrete. American flags were on prominent display. But standing at a podium in this Potemkin office, Hoover had little to announce.
He began by noting that Mississippi had the third lowest crime rate in America. (Mississippi newspapers touted this half-truth all summer, yet although the state’s nonviolent crime rate was among the nation’s lowest, its murder rate was the highest, more than double the national norm.) When reporters asked Hoover about Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, he was blunt. “I don’t close it as an absolute certainty,” he said, “but I consider that they are dead.” The search, however, would go on. Another fifty agents had arrived—solely to investigate. “We most certainly do not and will not give protection to civil rights workers,” Hoover insisted. He hinted he would visit Neshoba County, but death threats to his motel later made him cancel his plans. Not everyone in Mississippi thought Hoover’s visit marked “truly a great day!” Alarmed at the FBI invasion, Mississippians were joking that the letters FBI stood for “Federal Bureau of Integration.” In Jackson, a state senator denounced the “calculated insult” of having two hundred FBI agents in Mississippi “carrying out the wishes of Bobby Kennedy.”
While Hoover spoke in Jackson that morning, the sickness struck in the full glare of daylight. Toward noon in Hattiesburg, a middle-aged man and his nephew tossed a tire iron into a pickup and set out to “whup” the first “white niggers” they met. They were driving near the railroad tracks when they spotted, on an embankment, three white men walking with two black teenage girls. Stopping their truck, sprinting up the grassy incline, the attackers raced past the girls, who could only watch in horror. Fists leveled one volunteer. Another, kicked and pummeled, rolled into a ball, scattering his canvassing forms. The attacker gathered the papers and shoved them in the volunteer’s mouth, shouting, “Eat this shit, nigger lover!” The third victim, a rabbi from Ohio, took the full brunt of the sickness. The tire iron smashed the rabbi’s temple. As he slumped to the ground, the attacker flailed away. After a minute, the men raced down the embankment and drove off. The next day, photos of Rabbi Joseph Lelyveld, his shirt more scarlet than white, circulated around the country along with his expression of “deep sorrow for Mississippi.”
The weekend offered more cause for “deep sorrow.” In the numbing brutality that followed, Mississippi’s stark divides, separating moderate from hard-liner, redneck from socialite, assailant from onlooker, blurred in relentless revenge. And a state proud of its hospitality could no longer deny that any level of savagery now seemed possible. Canton. Browning. Laurel. Firebomb thrown at a Freedom House. Church burned. Twelve-year-old boys hit with baseball bats while cops look on. Vicksburg. Jackson. Natchez. Bomb thrown into a black café. Elderly white man beats a black woman in a coffee shop. Two more churches doused in kerosene, flames consuming the altars, the crucifixes, the wooden walls, leaving blackened cement stairs climbing from the ashes. From across Mississippi, the reports kept coming in—of assaults, bombings, and finally bodies.
On Sunday evening, July 12, a CBS reporter called the CORE office in Meridian. Had they heard the news? A fisherman downriver in Louisiana had spotted a body snagged on a log. A half body—legs only, clad in blue jeans, sneakers, bound at the ankles. No one had checked skin color, but the jeans had a leather belt with a buckle stamped M, and a gold watch and key chain in one pocket. The COFO worker shuddered. Mickey Schwerner had a similar belt, watch, and chain. And he always wore blue jeans and sneakers. Only the day before, someone had rushed in with a rumor that if the bodies were found, they would be “mutilated and scattered in different states.” CORE called lawyer William Kunstler in New York. He phoned Rita Schwerner. Rita said her husband’s watch was silver, not gold. He had no belt buckle with an M. But by then the FBI was already rushing to Louisiana, along with a navy frogman to search the river bottom. The following day, agents found another half body lying on a sandbar. Both corpses were black. Papers in back pockets identified the men as college students from Alcorn A & M. Abducted in May, they had been murdered, tied to the motor block of an old Jeep, and thrown in the river. “Mississippi is the only state where you can drag a river any time and find bodies you were not expecting,” a volunteer wrote his parents. “Negroes disappear down here every week and are never heard about. . . . Jesus Christ, this is supposed to be America in 1964.”
And when reading a son’s or daughter’s letter about corpses, church burnings, attacks with tire irons, what were parents supposed to think? Mississippi’s “low” crime rate notwithstanding, violence there had become so common that it no longer made front pages. Friends kept asking parents how they could let their children spend summer “down there.” Relatives phoned—“Did you see the horrible photo of that rabbi? ” Some parents were now calling their children daily, begging them to come home. “We did not flee Hitler for my daughter to become a martyr,” one mother said. But as their children soldiered on, most parents only called each other.
Ever since learning of the summer project, total strangers had been sharing worries about their dedicated, idealistic, slightly crazy kids. In late April, parents in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) had written LBJ, asking for federal protection against the “tanks, guns, and troop carriers” stockpiled in Mississippi. A month later, Boston parents did the same. Two weeks before the disappearance, a “Parents Emergency Committee” in Manhattan telegrammed LBJ, urging action “before a tragic incident takes place.” And three days after the tragic incident, two dozen parents had flown to Washington, D.C., to speak with senators, the deputy attorney general, and a White House aide.
Some parents had more clout than others. In Whittier, California, Fran O’Brien’s mother could only buy a subscription to the Vicksburg Post and worry. In Amherst, Massachusetts, Jean Williams could merely save letters from “Xtoph” and hope for the best. In Washington, D.C., Holly Tillinghast, having taught in Mississippi, could only fear the worst. But a few parents had pipelines straight to Congress.
One morning in early July, volunteer Steve Bingham awoke in Mileston to find the Mississippi Highway Patrol looking for him. Bingham was the grandson of Hiram Bingham, discoverer of Machu Picchu and later a U.S. senator. The Binghams were one of Connecticut’s most prominent families, but now their youngest son was living with eight other volunteers in a shack on a dirt road in Mississippi, cooking on camp stoves and getting water from a hand pump in the backyard. The Binghams, though backing their son’s decision to go south, were concerned. Shortly after Steve Bingham reached Mississippi, his father contacted Mississippi senator John Stennis, an old family friend. Bingham was not merely concerned about his own son—he wanted all volunteers protected. But Stennis called Governor Paul Johnson, and Steve Bingham soon found himself guarded day and night by highway patrolmen. Bingham only shed his bodyguards with the help of Bob Moses. Knowing patrolmen were as scared of the Klan as everyone else, Moses had Bingham tell the highway patrol that their protection would allow him to work in Klan-ridden Natchez. The bodyguards abandoned Bingham within an hour. Later that summer, when a New Yorker was arrested while driving Allard Lowenstein around Mississippi, cops took one look at the name on his driver’s license—Franklin Delano Roosevelt III—and let him go.
But parents who could only sit and wait refused to sit and wait alone. By mid-July, parent support groups had formed across the country. Boston parents started a letter-writing campaign to the Justice Department. “Sometimes when I lie awake at night,” a mother said at one meeting, “I can’t get the picture of my child, either mutilated or dead, out of my mind.” Long Island parents gave $2,000 to a volunteer driven out of Moss Point in June. Returning to Mississippi, he handed the money over to COFO. And in a scene as removed from Mississippi as any American setting could be, parents began meeting at a lavish poolside home in Beverly Hills.
At 8:00 p.m. on Monday, July 13, the meeting of the Parents Mississippi Emergency Committee, Los Angeles Area, was called to order. Parents in attendance were a diverse lot—a movie director, a janitor’s wife, a minister, a high school teacher, the head of the biology department at the California Institute of Technology—yet their fears were one. “We didn’t really know what we wanted to do when we got together,” one mother said, “except protect them somehow.”
On one wall in the opulent living room, a sheet of cardboard displayed the latest news from Mississippi. That morning’s Los Angeles Times clipping—“Trussed Body Discovered in Louisiana River”—did not ease concerns, nor did a mother’s story from Hattiesburg. Speaking with tight control, she described how her son, David, had been with the rabbi everyone had seen in the papers. David now had a wide strip shaved from his scalp, and seven stitches. He was saving his bloody shirt as a souvenir. Other grim-faced parents shared their children’s letters—“I’m hot, I’m miserable and I can’t get my clothes washed. Would you please let me stay another month? ” Then the group got down to business.
One father suggested a bail fund, and within minutes, parents wrote out checks totaling $2,150. The group then heard from a Bay Area mother whose parents’ group had talked to Mississippians arriving for the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. The Mississippi delegates had offered parents advice to pass on to their children—(1) leave; and (2) pray. After the Bay Area report, parents planned activities—a garden party and a picnic, a hootenanny and an art auction—with funds to go to COFO. Toward 9:30 p.m., the meeting broke up. Heading down freeways, blinking into blurred taillights, parents noted that in the firecracker towns where their crazy kids were spending the summer, it was nearly midnight.
Ten days of naked violence had taken their toll. On July 15, thirty-four Freedom Summer workers were arrested. In the Delta’s “tough town” of Drew, two dozen were crammed into a stinking, twenty-by-twenty-foot cement jail, sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and singing themselves hoarse. Across Mississippi, volunteers were struggling to keep their spirits afloat. Since coming south, they had seen three men disappear, a hundred or more arrested, several churches burned, men beaten, women insulted and degraded. Some must have wondered whether coming to Mississippi had been a mistake. Others saw their faith in America turn to bitterness. “Where is the USA?” one wrote. “It is a violation of FEDERAL LAW to harass voter registration workers.” Another lashed out with resentment that would soon become a signature sentiment of the 1960s. Noting the rank injustice condoned by the “decent middle-class,” he shot back, “Crap on your middle class, on your decency, mister Churches man. Get out of your god-damned new rented car. Get out of your pressed, proper clothes. Get out of your unoffensive, shit-eating smile and crewcut. Come join us who are sleeping on the floor.”
Midway through the third week in July, Fred Winn’s father came home, took off his tie, poured a drink, and sat down to read a letter postmarked Shaw, Mississippi. Because Fred’s handyman skills were needed in the bone-poor Delta town, the mustachioed carpenter had been transferred to Shaw, where he was “running my rear end off.” Though his eyes had been opened by the suffering of blacks in Ruleville, Fred was still naive enough to be appalled by the deeper squalor of Shaw. There he met children with bellies swollen by hunger and visited fetid shacks tilted and sinking into the soil. Sharecroppers in Shaw had given up hope, but whites seemed determined to drive them still harder. “Dad,” Fred wrote home, “the peoples’ way of thinking down here is absolutely stupid and un-American.”
Fred was in Shaw only a few days when he met the Bolivar County sheriff. A thin, dapper plantation owner and Citizens’ Council member, Sheriff Charlie Capps considered the volunteers “dirty” and “unclean.” “To me, their motives are unspeakable,” the sheriff said. But Capps, neither a bully nor a Klansman, had no desire for publicity or federal marshals, and he knew a murder could bring both to his county. “What happened in Neshoba might have happened in any county in Mississippi,” he remembered. To keep the peace, the sheriff deputized three dozen fellow World War II veterans. “We were a small town and we weren’t used to Yankees, certainly not that kind,” Capps said. “But I learned in the army that when you have massive fire-power, there’s not much gonna happen.” Calling Fred Winn and other volunteers into his office, Capps advised them to go home where they belonged. Local whites, he said, hated them with a fury no sheriff could contain. Then, seeing the volunteers would not leave, the sheriff said he would do his best “to keep a lid on things.” Yet as Fred’s father read his son’s letter, he sensed the lid boiling over.
On Saturday night, July 11, volunteers had been relaxing in Shaw’s spruced-up community center, due to open that Monday. As blacks and whites talked, sang, and shared a watermelon, a local Negro boy rushed in. Stuttering, trembling, the boy said he’d just been offered $400 to blow up the building. Instantly, all lights were shut off. Everyone fled to the back office and sat in the muggy darkness. Earlier they had joked that with nothing whatsoever to do in Shaw, they were the white people’s “show” that Saturday night, but no one felt like joking anymore. Volunteer Len Edwards called his father, a California congressman. Don Edwards had been in the FBI and had just returned from Mississippi. He told his son he would call the bureau and get someone out there. Fred Winn phoned the San Francisco Chronicle, but the night desk was not interested. As minutes inched by, Shaw, Mississippi, began to seem like some lonely outpost on the edge of civilization. From inside the shadowy, sweltering office, volunteers could hear bullfrogs bellowing, crickets pulsing. Headlights slid across dingy office walls. Seated on sticky floors or rickety chairs, volunteers wondered if Shaw might soon be the Delta’s McComb, with bombs blasting in the night. Then, as stars and a sliver of a moon came out, lookouts ventured outside.
One man climbed onto the roof. Scanning the dark cotton fields in one direction, Shaw’s lamplit quarters in the other, he spotted two police cars and six helmeted cops, their cigarettes glowing in the dark. The cops talked and joked while cars passed, heading for the Freedom House. From any vehicle might come a bomb, a flaming bottle, a shotgun blast. The wait continued. At 10:00 p.m., men still inside the Freedom House decided “the girls” should be evacuated. Over protest from a Radcliffe student who said women needed no special treatment, “the girls” held hands and walked to a nearby home where a plump, grizzled black man sat on the porch, a double-barreled shotgun in his lap.
Toward 11:00 p.m., lightning flashed on the western horizon. One slowly ticking hour later the storm was upon them, whipping trees, drowning conversations with thunder and finally ending the Saturday night show in Shaw. Cars and cops headed home and so did volunteers, walking in the warm and drenching night. The FBI came at 1:30 a.m.
In his posh San Francisco home, Fred Winn’s father thought again of World War II as he read an angry description of “our night of terror” written by another volunteer.
I was and am furious. Here are youths who would be the glory of any nation, and they waited for a bomb to blow them out of this hostile land. . . . And this is in the land of the free. Here where millions have come seeking streets paved with gold, there have lived millions on streets drowned in mud. . . . Here in the beautiful land of the purple mountain’s majesty, we sat and waited for the bombers.
I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river, I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come.